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How hyperbole hurts the poor

The first step towards truly helping New Zealanders in poverty is to agree on the extent—or even the existence—of the problem of poverty here in Aotearoa.

Poverty is completely unacceptable, and as such we have a moral obligation to help those whose lives are blighted by it. The people who wish to sidestep this moral obligation to alleviate poverty will use one of two arguments to do so: to deny that “real” poverty exists in New Zealand, or to claim that the “poor” deserve to suffer because of choices they’ve made. 

Most poverty advocates, while incredibly passionate and well-intentioned, make two mistakes when pushing back on these claims. The first is to “oversell” the problem of poverty, by relentlessly citing measurements that give the highest possible headline figure—“one in four kiwi kids” for example—while ignoring that other reasonable measures give lower (yet still distressing) figures. The second is to portray the poor as saints, incapable of making bad decisions. While a focus on child poverty cleverly attempts to defuse this second argument by abstracting innocent children from their potentially-culpable parents, the first mistake remains. 

A recent Herald editorial expressed this as the “ever-present temptation to gild the lily,” a Shakesperian reference describing an attempt to make a flower more impressive by covering it in liquid gold, diminishing its beauty in the process. The headline that sparked this description stated that “Kiwi kids no better off than those in India’s slums.” To be fair, Dr. Jonathan Boston actually said that “there are children in New Zealand living in circumstances that are not that much different than those in the slums of Delhi.” More reasonable yes, but the comparison is still unhelpful. 

Headlines like this are a shame because Dr. Boston and his co-author Dr. Simon Chapple’s recently-released book “Child Poverty in New Zealand” is one of the best examples of policy advocacy I’ve ever encountered. Why? Because it recognises that values matter, and offers policy solutions that resonate with both the centre-right and centre-left. In the author’s words, the book aims to “to give information to those who are already concerned, to persuade those who are ‘convertible,’ and at least to address the do-nothing arguments of the unconvincable. Gilding the lily is counter-productive to this goal. 

Oxford Professor Stein Ringen expressed this as the “cautionary principle.” According to Ringen, in controversial matters it isn’t enough to have the facts on your side, you also have to communicate them in a way that will “be believed in particular by those who may have an interest in disbelieving it.” Warning against hyperbole, he says that for a story to be believed there should be “nothing in the way it is told to give those who wish to disbelieve it the opportunity to do so.” 

The unconvincable will remain so while the cautionary principle is ignored, and so the poor will likely remain in poverty. The balance between chasing headlines and changing lives is a difficult one. All of us that care deeply about poverty should tread more carefully, and care a little more about how we communicate.

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